Saturday 11 October 2014

SmackTalk 10.10.14: SmackDown Fifteenth Anniversay

If I could I’d start this post by making note of some of my favourite SmackDown memories from the past fifteen years. With it being an anniversary show it seems the appropriate thing to do. Unfortunately I can’t remember anything that wasn’t highlight by WWE during the show. That’s mostly due to SmackDown being the number two show for the majority of its life.

In fact the only thing I feel that’s worth mentioning here is that the first regular episode of SmackDown aired in the US on 26 August 1999. That means WWE are close to two months late with this fifteenth anniversary celebration. And, for the record, that wasn’t even the first episode of SmackDown. The first episode had been recorded and aired as a special in April ’99. I’d understand WWE ignoring that date in favour of the show’s debut as a weekly fixture, but I can’t say the same about this random October date.

But this isn’t the first time WWE have changed facts and figures for their own needs. It won’t be the last either. What was nice about the show was that WWE managed to capture the general pointlessness the programme has in 2014 and turn it into something worth celebrating. Truly they are masters of turning nothing into something (albeit something forgettable and entirely skippable).

The show kicked off with a video package filled with fast cuts between memorable SmackDown moments. Included were a generic Edge and Christian bit; some double posing from Triple H and Hulk Hogan; a face-off between Hogan and Brock Lesnar; Rock’s sliding People’s Elbow on The British Bulldog (it wasn’t clear that it was Bulldog, but it was); Schwarzenegger holding a replica title belt over his head and grinning; Rhino goring Chris Jericho through the stage set; Bischoff swerving the universe at the Billy and Chuck wedding by peeling off a fake face (which is particularly strange taken out of the wedding context as it was here); Cody throwing Sandow's briefcase into water and Sandow leaping in after it; Eddie Guerrero doing a frog splash off a cage (I can’t remember who took it, for which I can only apologise); Cena debuting opposite Kurt Angle; the Lesnar-Big Show ring explosion; Austin blowing up the DX Express; Rock making Coach dance the Charleston; and Undertaker parodying himself with the "Buckle up Teddy!" line. After that the video rattled through shots of Austin, Rock, Undertaker, DX, Jericho and others on SmackDown, presumably to remind us that the show was once pretty relevant.

Sadly there was no "Tag match, playa!" But we'd get to that. In fact we’d get back to many of the clips shown here. WWE replayed many of them later in the show in a series of celebratory reminders which, again, seemed designed to remind people that things used to happen on SmackDown.

In the arena it was Stephanie McMahon who got the show started. She was introduced not only as a principle owner but also the first ever SmackDown GM. As she strode to the ring Michael Cole informed us that when SmackDown first aired JBL was still wrestling and Tom Philips was ten years-old. Naturally he avoided revealing that when SmackDown first aired he was being humiliated by The Rock on a weekly basis.

Stephanie mentioned Rock coining the term SmackDown and losing to Triple H on the debut episode. Then she got interrupted by John Laurinaitis. The initial reaction to him was (understandably) uninspired but a nice “People power!” chant started up as soon as his music cut. Big Johnny said he'd been researching (though he didn't say what) on the WWE Network and had some matches he wanted to make. He didn't get to reveal them because Teddy Long came out, to a much louder reaction than Laurinaitis had received. JBL got up to dance and shake Teddy's hand. The crowd broke out in a “Teddy!” chant. Children wept with happiness. Women screamed out their love and adoration. Men shouted that they aspired to one day be as charismatic, powerful, and downright cool as Teddy Long. WWE were fools to release the man. He's money.

"Tag match, playa!"
Teddy and Johnny had a little back and forth (including Teddy nonsensically cramming in the line "The proof is in the playa") before Johnny announced a tag match. Teddy upped it to a six man tag match. Laurinaitis jumped it to a ten man tag. Teddy stacked it up further still, settling on a fifteen man tag match. It took him an age to run through the teams. I’m sure this as a joke at his expense, and that the segment was edited heavily.

Steph added the stip that the two men would captain the teams. The winning team would earn their captain the title of Best GM Ever. She put over the night’s Miz TV and then Adam Rose danced out to wish SmackDown a happy birthday and tell Stephanie to be a Rosebud. Stephanie booked him in a match with Kane. The three GMs danced into a break for some mid-2000s SmackDown surrealism.

The evening’s first glance to the past video played. It focused on the main event of the first episode, Triple H defending the WWF world championship against The Rock. It ended with guest referee super kicking ‘The Brahma Bull’ in the face, allowing his buddy to recover and hit a Pedigree for the win. I have never seen this match because Sky took a while to start airing SmackDown. I’ve seen enough Rock v Triple H matches to assume it was good.

After a break Kane came out. He was not wearing a vest, sadly. He listed some of the things he's not (a cheeseburger, a bunny, a lemon, a Rosebud) and said that what he is is a party pooper. Obviously he did this because those things were in Rise's entourage, but listing what he's not should be a new Kane gimmick. Basically, I want Kane to be made as peculiar and strange as possible. He no longer makes sense in any way as a character. WWE should embrace that.

‘The Big Red Machine’ won quickly with a choke slam. It was Rose’s first loss, pretty impressive when you consider how long he’s been on TV without a serious push behind him. He can now fulfil his destiny and become a jobber to the stars. After the match Kane punched, kicked and choke slammed a number of the Rosebuds. He nearly got his hands on the bunny, but it got away.

Blast from the past vid number two saw Kurt Angle issuing an open challenge to any young guy in the back wanting a shot at him. Because he was a big star in a big company back then, and a competitive match against him was a big deal. Cena lost the match, although WWE omitted that fact because these days Cena has to be shown as all powerful, not someone who’d lose to cleanly to a guy who no longer works for the company. Rikishi, Ron Simmons, and, most significantly, then-WWE champion Undertaker were booked to congratulate him afterwards. Ron said Cena would go far. He is wrestling’s Nostradamus.

Match two saw AJ Lee wrestle Alicia Fox. It was another short match. AJ won when she got picked up for a slam and countered into a Black Widow. Paige attacked after the match but AJ quickly dispatched her and skipped off.

The third recap focused on big stunts. Included was footage of Eddie Guerrero leaping off a cage (again); Jeff vaulting from one ladder over another ladder and going through a table; Rey Mysterio's debut jumping off a cage onto the UnAmericans; Kane jumping off a turnbuckle onto the New Age Outlaws during an inferno match; Mark Henry breaking into a cage; Mark Henry awkwardly jumping off the second rope through a table (probably edited to fool people not paying attention into thinking Henners did a top of the cage splash through a table); The Shield triple power bombing The Undertaker through a table; Stephanie slapping Linda; Rhino Goring Jericho through the set (again); and Lesnar superplexing Big Show to collapse the ring (again).

Kofi's face equals pain.
That was followed by Seth Rollins v Kofi Kingston. Rollins had Joey Mercury and Jamie Noble with him at ringside. Which gives me a chance to talk about their status as the New Stooges. Basically, I’m all for this. Pat Patterson and Gerald Brisco received a sort of second career when they became Vince McMahon’s stooges in 1998, and it’s arguably what they’re most remembered for now. I like the idea of Triple H having a similar relationship with Noble and Mercury, two guys who were always competent but never especially over during their runs as active wrestlers.

Rollins versus Kingston was not the first match you'd probably expect. Rollins controlled the bulk of the encounter and kept the pace slow. Early foray to ringside and brief Kofi comeback aside there was nothing much to see. Rollins won with a buckle bomb and a Curb Stomp.

That was followed by a Wyatt Family video. It focused on Luke Harper having been fixed and getting sent out into the world. I think splitting the trio is a mistake. You can read a lengthy explanation here, but basically Harper and Rowan are more likely to be booked, and booked relatively prominently, if they remain affiliated, even loosely, with Bray.  

Another recap followed that. The topic was Money in the Bank cash-ins. It was an odd choice as there were only two to show. The first was Edge’s World Heavyweight title win over ‘Taker, one night after he’d defeated original Money in the Bank contract holder Mr Kennedy for the briefcase. The second saw Jack Swagger cashing in on Jericho to win his one and only world title.

Everybody taps.
Ziggler v Rusev was preceded by the obligatory replay of The Rock's surprise appearance on RAW. The match was, by the standards of Rusev's TV appearances, a competitive affair. Ziggler sold for a while before making a comeback with a corner splash and a Fameasser. Rusev weathered those, blocked a super kick, then hit a super kick of his own and applied The Accolade for the tap out victory.

Afterwards Lana laid into Philadelphia (hey, you gotta get that cheap heat) and The Rock. Rusev said Rock would pay for what he'd done and also challenged Big Show to face him on RAW, promising to crush him. I expect that will be more angle than match. The natural place for that bout is Hell in a Cell (the show, not the gimmick).

A reminder that Steve Austin and Booker T once brawled around a supermarket came next. I hated this segment at the time. It was a funny enough premise but it dragged. I’m sure the unedited version lasts around five minutes, which is a painful amount of time to watch two men hit each other with groceries.

The Rock, Triple H and Stephanie were shown meeting up backstage after RAW. It started with awkward, unamusing smalltalk. They reminisced about the first SmackDown main event. Rock brought up how amazing it would be for them to have one more match at a WrestleMania. Both thought they'd win, obvs. The segment ended with Triple H telling Stephanie Rock was cheap for never picking up a cheque. It took a while to get going but it ended up being pretty enjoyable.

For the record I think WWE could do worse than a Triple H versus Rock match at WrestleMania 31 or 32. The most interesting thing about the idea, to me, is that even though they feuded on and off for years they never had a singles match at a WrestleMania. In fact, the only match they had at a 'Mania was a four-way elimination including Mick Foley and Big Show which saw ‘The Great One’ and ‘The Game’ as the final two. Promoted as their final ever confrontation, with videos put together to remind us that their feud was a constant as they progressed from the middle to the top of the roster and included dozens of TV and pay-per-view confrontations, I think it could be a big nostalgia attraction. That said, I think it would be better to have both men facing younger guys.

Back in the arena Michael Cole showed a (sloppily made) cake with the SmackDown logo on it. JBL chucked it over Tom Phillips and everyone had a good laugh. Well, Cole and Layfield did. The audience chuckled humourlessly. I rolled my eyes. The eye-rolling stopped when Booker T was introduced as a guest commentator for the main event. His first sentence on the headsets included the words “shucky ducky quack quack”. I’d be completely fine if JBL were only on RAW and Booker was left to handle SmackDown again.

The final flashback video showed highlights of the episode of SmackDown where Austin psyched out the McMahon-Helmsley faction. They went out the ring to call him out, foolishly leaving their tour bus unattended. ‘Stone Cold’ took that opportunity to hijack a crane and blow the bus up. Natch.

Match-wise Team Teddy versus Team Johnny was the main event. Teddy team was comprised of Sheamus, Mark Henry, Jack Swagger, the Usos, Los Matadores, and El Torito. Big Johnny’s was comprised of Cesaro, Bo Dallas, Stardust, Goldust, Damien Mizdow, Slater Gator, and Mini Gator.

It was the longest match of the night by a wide margin. It had time to be good but there were too many guys involved for it to accomplish that. Everyone seemed to settle on making it inoffensive and they managed it. And if that doesn’t perfectly sum up fifteen years of SmackDown I don’t know what does.

Dives are always good for a pop.
Jimmy Uso was kept in the ring to play babyface in peril for a while. During this time there was a loud “We want Mizdow!” chant and extended cheers when he tagged in. When Jimmy finally managed to make the tag it was to Sheamus. He blasted through the majority of his opposition and a sequence of Big Spots™ kicked off. Shaymo lined up Cesaro, Stardust and Slater to give them all his ten punch spot. The babyface tag teams hit some dives. Henry went to hit a World’s Strongest Slam on Bo but found himself sent tumbling over the top rope. Bo then power bombed El Torito onto a gaggle of guys hanging around at ringside. The ending saw Mizdow tag in and try an SCF on ‘Great White’, only to be rammed into the turnbuckle, slump to the mat, and take the match-wnning top rope splash from an Uso. Let's say it was Jey.

After another Wyatt video, this one focusing on Erick Rowan (described as a big child) it was time for the main event promo segment. Before introducing his guests Miz announced that the Ambrose v Cena match at Hell in Cell will not just be for a Cell match with Rollins. It will also be a contract on a pole match. Maybe Russo, free of the constraints of working for TNA, has returned to WWE to book pole matches. But probably not.

Ambrose kicked things off by saying he attacked Cena on RAW to show that it doesn't matter who he is or what he’s accomplished: nobody crosses Dean Ambrose. Anyone that crosses him gets hunted down. He also made it clear that he wants Rollins inside the Hell in a Cell because Rollins crossed him. Which was a good move: it would have been all too easy for the focus of the segment to be Cena and Ambrose's match, when it should have been about the hatred both have for Rollins and their reasons for wanting him. Which is what ended up happening, unfortunately. But hey, Ambrose tried.

Cena immediately did his best to undercut Ambrose by being patronising, telling him he was impressed. Apparently he listens to the reactions everyone gets and watches every segment of every show. Which is probably true, but it could make him sound a little paranoid about the safety of his spot. He said Ambrose has "it", that mythical, undefinable quality that separates the massively successful wrestlers from their peers? No. A pair of baseballs, which Cena pulled from his pocket. Presumably they were there to represent testicles, a shorthand for tenacity and determination in wrestling.

How else was WWE going to close their fifteenth anniversary SmackDown show?
Cena yammered a bit more putting himself over and saying he likes his chances at Hell in a Cell. Miz asked Ambrose if he likes his chances against Cena. Ambrose’s response: "Yep." Cena said he'd see Ambrose at HIAC. Miz stopped him and tried to stir things up between them. The faces gave Miz a beating. Cena quickly hoisted 'The Awesome One' up for an AA but decided to put him down and let Ambrose hit the double arm DDT instead... after which Ambrose took an AA.

As a wrestling show, this episode of SmackDown was subpar. Only one segment did anything for the next pay-per-view and only one match lasted more than five minutes, and it wasn’t very good. But as a celebration of SmackDown’s fifteen year history it worked. Teddy Long, John Laurinaitis and Booker T were all used effectively and everything about the self-contained story of the episode (the battle of the former GMs) screamed inconsequential filler. And if that’s not SmackDown for most of the past fifteen years, I don’t know what is.

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